As a charter school in the College Area, Harriet Tubman Village Charter has operated with a degree of autonomy that allowed it to create its own structure and elect its own leaders. For years, it did relatively well, earning a solid reputation and outperforming nearby schools.

Over the past year and half, though, that autonomy has morphed into something more troubling. In 2014, hoping to quell drama that had flared at the school, San Diego Unified School Board members appointed one parent, Aimee Nimtz, to the charter school’s governing board.

Since then, former Tubman staff members say Nimtz seized control of the school, pushed to fire three principals in quick succession and has become Tubman’s most serious problem.

Now the school’s board, led by Nimtz, has fired the latest principal, Barney Wilson, after only four months on the job. The school is now looking for its fourth principal in a year and a half.

In June, San Diego Unified expressed concern about the sudden changes at Tubman. In a warning letter staff members sent the school, they wrote that Tubman represented a “systemic failure of leadership.”

The letter reads: “Since (Nimtz’) appointment, Ms. Nimtz has become board president, unilaterally made herself the CEO and taken control of the daily operations of the school. Her actions are well beyond the scope of what the district board appointed her to do, and have resulted in additional governance and operational issues for the school.”

The district also notified Tubman that is was “not in good standing,” a label that indicates a charter needs to address problems. If not remedied, the school could eventually face revocation and be closed down.

Among the recommendations the district made: Overhaul the governance board to elect all new leaders; change it from a five- to seven-person board.

Despite the warning, Nimtz remains chair of a five-person board.

Another Sudden Change

Last summer, when Amanda Otero was looking for a school to send her daughter, she knew Tubman’s backstory and had heard plenty of complaints about the school.

But she lived nearby, and wanted to give the school a chance. “It’s diverse and has a free after-school program,” she said. “The school has so much potential.”

Otero liked Wilson. She said he’d stand in front of the school each morning greeting parents and kids, and seemed to remember everyone’s name. He even remembered her daughter’s learning needs, she said, and helped her get into an afterschool program.

Otero said she was didn’t even know Wilson had left until she got an automated call from someone who said she was Tubman’s new interim principal and was excited by the new opportunity. Pedro Fuentez, a vice principal, was fired alongside Wilson.

“(Wilson and Fuentez) were there such a short period of time, I don’t know what they could have done – right or wrong,” Otero said.

Wilson wasn’t any more prepared for the news. He said the termination was quickly decided after he raised objections to the way Nimtz tried to evaluate staff.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

Wilson’s story mirrors that of Jeffrey Moore, Tubman’s former principal who was fired abruptly in February.

“My whole philosophy was to slow the school down this year. No drama. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible with Nimtz there,” Wilson said.

Wilson said years of turmoil have taken a financial toll on the school. At one point, the power company threatened to cut the school’s lights off, Wilson said. (Nimtz says basic services were never in jeopardy).

Fuentez said academics are disjointed and instruction is amateur. Educators are teaching lessons they bought online, he said, without regard to how it ties into what colleagues are teaching.

“Teachers are all doing different things,” Fuentez said.

Wilson and Fuentez came after Moore, who followed another former principal, Lidia Scinski. All four dismissals happened after April 2014, when San Diego Unified school board trustees appointed Nimtz to Tubman’s governance board.

How a Parent Took Over the School

School boards have a right to appoint individuals to charter school boards, and that’s what San Diego Unified’s did with Nimtz.

The move came after Tubman teachers and supporters had marched arm in arm into a district school board meeting and demanded action against Scinski, who they said bullied staff.

Trustees launched an internal investigation into Tubman – which found little – and appointed Nimtz to the school’s governance board. She was a parent with kids in the school and seemed to understand Tubman’s culture.

Nimtz’s appointment backfired, said Christina Boyd, who served on Tubman’s board until she clashed with Nimtz and resigned.

Boyd said Nimtz’s tenure started out innocently enough.

“She’s very believable,” Boyd told me in June. “She comes across as someone who truly wants the best for the school and understands, because she’s a parent.”

But, Boyd said, not long after she arrived, Nimtz went to work behind the scenes, and convinced other board members that certain staff members were problem employees.

Boyd said Nimtz orchestrated Moore’s termination, spreading rumors and withholding information from the rest of the board. That’s when Boyd said she called it quits. Another former board member, Troy Murphree, backed up Boyd’s story.

Moore, the former principal, said Nimtz inappropriately got involved in daily operations at the school.

“She was always on campus, breathing down my neck,” said Moore. “Always. It’s like she thought the school belonged to her – like it was her own little fiefdom. She’d tell people, ‘I’m the hirer, firer and check signer. You’re going to do what I say.’”

(Moore has since filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming Nimtz and the rest of the board violated state open meetings law when they fired him. Because charters are district schools, they must discuss business in open meetings like other local agencies.)

Now, the school is being operated by Michele Schuetz and Kathleen Daugherty, two members of a brand new, out-of-town consulting firm named Momnicafe LLC. Schuetz and Daugherty plan to lead the school through June and help the board search for a permanent replacement.

‘Our Parents and Staff Are Happy’

Nimtz takes exception to any narrative that casts dispersions on her or Tubman. She points to the fact that she’s only one member of a five-person board and said all decisions have been reached through a democratic process.

She rejects the notion that the school is currently in a state of unrest and chaos. “(That) may have been true a few weeks ago, but is no longer the case,” she wrote in an email.

She acknowledges the school has had recent cash-flow problems. But she said it’s because the school had an unexpected increase in enrollment and has had to do more with less until state funding catches up with current enrollment.

The situation underscores the complicated nature of charter schools, which operate autonomously but are approved and overseen by school districts. San Diego Unified monitors charter schools’ records and visits schools, but doesn’t get involved in day-to-day decisions.

Nimtz agreed to comment if I emailed her a list of questions. When I asked her why the board had not instituted the district’s recommendations, she said that some changes the district wanted required a reworking of Tubman’s charter – the school’s guiding document – and that’s a lengthy process.

She said that she stayed on as board chair against the district’s advice because other board members thought it was important she remain in the position “to provide the administration with historical background when appropriate.”

Nimtz and fellow board member Angela Reynoso said the negative stories about Tubman are inaccurate.

“Our enrollment is at an all-time high and our parents and staff are happy,” wrote Reynoso in an email.

Input from all board members, students and their families is heard and valued, Reynoso said. “You seem to be under the misconception that we don’t have a voice but you could not be farther from the truth,” she wrote.

“Tubman continues to outperform the other public schools in the area,” wrote Nimtz.

That claim is not quite true. Based on test scores released in September – the first results of tests tied to the new Common Core Standards – Tubman outperformed one nearby school and was bested by another.

Sixty-four percent of Tubman students failed to meet standards in English language arts; 75 percent of students didn’t meet standards in math. Scores in both sections are lower than the district’s overall average.

Tubman’s Future Still Up in the Air

Deirdre Walsh, a program manager in the district’s charter school office, said last Wednesday she met with Tubman’s new leaders, who wanted to discuss how the school could get back into good standing.

That conversation did not happen, she said, because the new leaders had only been at Tubman for several days and hadn’t yet met all board and staff members.

“It’s a little difficult to have a substantive conversation about getting back in good standing when (Schuetz and Daugherty) hadn’t even met the board members,” Walsh said.

Chief among the Walsh’s concerns for the school: the turnover of principals.

“That is in itself concerning. Normally, we don’t see schools burn through principals that fast,” Walsh said.

While Walsh said there’s no direct consequences for not making the changes her office recommends, it’s not a good sign.

“We don’t make those recommendations lightly,” Walsh said. “If they’re not made, the harm is really to the school itself. And it says to us that Tubman’s board does not value our input.”

Revocation is the one big stick districts carry for charter schools that don’t follow the rules, but Walsh said her office is not pursuing revocation at this time.

But even if Tubman’s future isn’t under any immediate threat from the district, the ordeal is certain to impact its reputation, a factor that looms large for charter schools. When things are going well, and words gets around, students come, bringing state funding along with them.

Flip that, and a shaky reputation means fewer students enrolling, which means less money coming in. Academic programs start to suffer. It’s a death spiral more than one charter school has experienced.

Tubman may not be at that stage. If it were to close eventually, it may be reabsorbed by the district and turned into a neighborhood school – something its leaders have considered in recent years.

Wilson isn’t particularly hopeful about the school’s future – at least under its current leadership.

“It’s a very unsettling experience to see this abuse of power. This isn’t how education is supposed to look,” he said. “The issue is not going to change as long as Nimtz is on the board.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Christina Boyd. 

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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